3 points on Smart Cities

A Smart City is more than a digital city. A Smart City is one that is able to link physical capital with social one, and to develop better services and infrastructures. It is able to bring together technology, information, and political vision, into a coherent programme of urban and service improvements. Credit: SafeCity Project - EU FI-PPP

I wrote a little article pointing out three considerations related to smart cities that has just been published by IEEE and I would like to share it also here.

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The city of the future will be self-aware, much like a second being. These cities will be able to reconfigure themselves, based on what’s happening, and what might happen, in the immediate future. A global perception exists that our cities can benefit from technology advances, as so many products and services have, and these in turn can help answering the growing challenges of resource management, economics constraints and social issues they are facing.

Cities have always attracted people to move from the countryside because they have been perceived, through the centuries and millennia (the first historically recorded urban settlements with thousands of people go back 5,000 years, in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt) as the place to be. First, it was about storing agricultural products, then about creating wares and protecting the riches and citizens from assaults that those riches invited.

Cities were born in symbioses with infrastructures, rivers, then roads and more recently logistic, telecommunications and education infrastructures.

Infrastructures make a city possible (water, sewage) and make it effective in managing resources and producing wealth. We have seen, recently, that there is a relation between the per-capita wealth and the size of the city and this relation is such that the larger a city the more wealth per-capita exists (size to 0.75 exponent). However, as cities grow larger, they are also putting more and more strain on their infrastructures; that decreases their efficiency and appeal, and if not corrected, results in a decreasing urban population.

The increased effectiveness of infrastructures (the first leap occurring with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, the second is ongoing) has multiplied the number of cities and increased their size. Whereas the largest city in the ancient time was Rome that peaked at over 1 million inhabitants, it was after the Industrial Revolution that infrastructures became capable of sustaining larger cities. Now there are 29 cities with over 10 million inhabitants (the first one to get over 10 million was New York in 1950). Providing power, water, sewage, food, transport for these kinds of cities is a nightmare and the related infrastructures are usually strained to their limit.

And so it is for the thousands of cities that are below the “megacity” level but that still have to manage extreme complexity.

In a way, it reminds me of the saying: “four-wheel drives let you get stuck in more inaccessible places.” Today’s sophisticated infrastructures push the envelope even further and bring us to face even bigger challenges.

This closes the first point I wanted to make: cities have always been smarter than their surroundings, and their smartness was sustained by their infrastructures. As these infrastructures became better (mostly thanks to technology advances) cities grew and in a way became smarter, although from a perception point of view they always present drawbacks and there is always the need to become smarter.

The second point I want to make is that today we have new technologies that can increase further the effectiveness of today’s infrastructures.

Think about the Internet of Things. By using sensors you can have a real-time monitoring of water, power, traffic, and garbage, thus becoming more effective in the use of resources and maintenance of equipment (reducing costs at the same time).

Telecommunications infrastructures and the Internet provide connectivity that basically overrides geographical distance, again making centralization possible as never before. At the same time, the combination of the Internet of Things, processing and sensors, transforms the city and its components into a sort of sentient beings (without a feeling, at least so far) that can start to act autonomously and at the same time in a coherent way. The rise of things and infrastructure awareness is what is now characterizing the transition from today’s to future infrastructures.

What will be characterizing the new wave of smarter cities will be the awareness of the infrastructures, by far based on the ones we have today.

The awareness, as I said, derives from the association of sensors, processing, communication and virtualization (mirroring of atoms at bit level). However, new “things” that will be produced in the next decade will be embedding processing, sensing and communication capabilities and will be aware “off the shelf.” The replacement of present infrastructures, however, is a lengthy process (and some will never be replaced, like aqueducts and sewage).

The third, and final, point I want to make is that new technology is making the creation of novel infrastructures possible. Of these I would like to focus on one that is close to us: ourselves.

If you think about it we are amazing sensors: we move around, we see what is going on, also, we are aware. We process the information our senses provide and take actions. New technology is now in place to connect brains as citizens can become an infrastructure. They can detect potholes (as in Boston) and signal their annoyance to the municipality that in turn can act. They can, all together, provide a feeling of the mood of the citizenship and it becomes possible to correlate these feelings to what is going on in the city and again take action.

Citizens, with the help of a connectivity fabric can provide “sentiment” to an already aware city. And this, I feel can bring us to what we might call smart city 3.0 (being the 2.0 the “aware” city).

Clearly, in order to have an effective citizen infrastructure you need to finely tune the sensors, that are ourselves. Citizens have to understand city processes, have to have a stake in the bettering of the city in saving resources and using them in the most effective way. Technology used to make a city aware can be applied to make citizens aware, but they need to be informed in a meaningful way.

Telling a person that if he is leaving a home device in standby he is going to waste a few watt-hours per day doesn’t provide a clear message. Saying to that person that leaving that home device in standby will result in an increase of his energy bill of $80 a year can be understood much better.

Telling a person that it is better to use public transportation because there would be a CO2 saving of 1 ton per year is not as effective as saying that by using public transportation now he will save 20 minutes on his journey.

 

We are just starting to have the right technology to create an effective citizen infrastructure for our cities. This is something we should focus on! Many disciplines will be required to make our cities smarter around the world; IT infrastructure, crowdsourcing, utility services optimization, and others. Sensors will continue to play a crucial role in communications between these two cities, until such a time when communication tools are innate. Only then will cities truly be smart.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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